“There are two types of having no money. Having no money after you pay your bills and having no money before you pay your bills.”

As with many things in life I didn’t appreciate at the time, my mother had summed up living on the bread line. She was in her early 30s standing in our kitchen in Tallaght and the electricity bill had come in. The ritual sick feeling encompassed us all. This bill spelled real ruin. The house had no heating system in it. There was a coal fire in the kitchen which had a back boiler that heated water but the bedrooms and bathroom had to be heated with a cheap blow heater she had picked up and circulated between the rooms. We lived in the kitchen. The front room was too cold. Those heaters meant the bill was astronomical. Had we been able to afford a heating system to run off the back boiler it would have been cheaper. Poverty makes things dearer.

There was a difference in the fire in the kitchen depending whether it was close after or close before the date of the monthly children’s allowance. Just after there was more coal and less slack, a situation reversed a couple of weeks later. The Winter Fuel Allowance was necessary but was only a slight mitigation.

The weekly Deserted Wives Allowance paid for basic food. It didn’t pay for clothes, transport, a phone or bills. My mother, despite the grindingly difficult time, remained optimistic in front of us. She would say as long as there was a sack of spuds and a tray of eggs there was always a dinner. And she had learned from her step mum to grow vegetables and fruit. My Nana’s digging for victory ethos from the second world war, meant we would have some treats in late summer and early autumn. 

There was a man who lived behind us who was in the St Vincent De Paul. He recognised my mother’s situation and her pride. He would bring the occasional bits and pieces that were “left over in the office”. In particular, the real butter from the butter mountains, and real beef. It was terrific. He managed to give dignity with much needed decent food. In return my mother made apple tarts from from her apple tree and butter that made real pastry. They both talked about it being fair exchange.

In Belfast today, there are food banks that meet the daily needs of families in our community. The need for them is growing at a horrifying rate with the pernicious changes to social welfare. It is not only the unemployed but also those on low wages who need the services of these good people.

In all of our supermarkets there are baskets collecting bits and pieces that good people contribute every week. An extra tin of beans or box of cornflakes that will undoubtedly go to those in need.

This is not a good news story. The generosity and good will of all those providing food to those most desperate is being exploited by an evil system of deliberate and enforced poverty. Charity is mitigating hunger but the cruel destruction of the welfare system relies on that. It is as cynical as it is wrong.

With every tin of beans we donate, there must be protest against why it is necessary. Or we become complicit in the causes of poverty with each tin of beans we donate.


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